A Not-so-Happy Anniversary

Children complicate adventure. Not so much because they might be inherently weaker or whinier, but because of their blind trust. Even at times of potential danger, they look at you with the surety that they’re safe inside some parental bubble, that nothing can harm them while dad or mum is in hand-holding reach. Take risks and you do so for two or three people but with the knowledge of only one. Such trust frightens me, especially since I know how fragile and misplaced it can be. Random chance doesn’t respect a child’s naivety.

Six years ago I took my family to Europe with the plan to cycle across the continent, beginning in Biarritz and meandering for five months towards Venice, towing our two young children in trailers behind the bikes. Two weeks into the trip – six years ago tomorrow – my then three-year-old son fractured his skull. Playing on a rotunda, following his older sister as she crept around its edge, he fell six feet onto a concrete path, landing on his head.


Holidaying… inside the neurology department of Bordeaux Hospital.

My kids might be older now, but I still battle with the responsibility of their overwhelming trust. When I hike with them, they simply throw on a backpack and know with unjustified certainty that the day will end comfortably inside our tent. I feed that trust by secretly working to remove as many potential dangers as possible. If it’s cool, for instance, I let them hike in front, but when it warms, I take the lead in case of snakes. They don’t know that I’m assessing each and every situation and moment, but it’s constant. And yet, for all that, a boy can still fall from a rotunda.

That day six years ago still haunts me because of what it could have been. It was a day that was a slow descent into Hell. First came the announcement at the small hospital in Blaye that my son had fractured his skull. Ever cool in a crisis, I promptly fainted and briefly ended up in a bed beside him.

As my son’s condition deteriorated, a neurologist was flown to town to accompany him in the ambulance into Bordeaux Hospital. I followed behind a short time later in a taxi, but when I arrived at the hospital, staff couldn’t locate my son. Then, for a few lost-in-translation minutes, I was left believing he’d died.

Finding him brought only a relief of sorts. Scans, doctors revealed, had found a spot on my son’s brain. He had brain damage and would require surgery the next day. But when the next day dawned, they decided the spot was unrelated and there was no organ damage, after all. It was the better diagnoses, and the correct one. My son suffered no lasting injury. The fracture was a clean line across the back of his skull. There was nothing to do but let it heal itself.

When he was released a few days later, it was with the warning that nobody can suffer such a head injury twice in life. We were free to keep cycling, but we should take very careful care of our son. That night, in a Bordeaux hotel, I went to check on him in the bathroom and found him hanging upside down from the sink, playing. Life had rolled on, and so did we. Two weeks later we were cycling again, heading west towards the Alps and Venice.


Happier, healthier recent times on the trail.

Ever since that accident, I’ve pondered the question of how much risk is too much risk when lives other than my own – lives still barely lived – are entrusted to me in blind faith. But the answer is that I’d still – and do – err on the side of some risk. I still take them deep into the bush and onto mountains behind me, and I’d still tow them again through the mountains of Europe because I’ve seen how these experiences, these times together, have shaped their sense of the world and their place in it.

Only this time I’d watch them more carefully as they climbed on rotundas.



13 thoughts on “A Not-so-Happy Anniversary

  1. Andrew I don’t think there will be a parent who reads this who doesn’t get a knot in their stomach. The balance of safety and exploration…a tough one. My ‘children’ are now in their late twenties but I would agree we edged more toward risk. Our son was on the Canadian rock climbing team which fit well with us doing the sport ouselves…need I say more? Really riveting post.

    • Thanks Sue. It is a tough balance but I’m confident you’re able to say your kids had a greater, more rounded childhood for the variety and experience you were able to add to it.

      • More importantly they confirm it Andrew. Sometimes I thought I might have a cardiac arrest watching my son ski race or work his way up a cliff. Turns out they learned a lot about life and themselves. 🙂

  2. Wow, I can only imagine not being a parent. Hard choices, but you’re probably helping them be more daring and adventurous, which I believe is good. Some of us are too cautious. 🙂

  3. I knew part of this story already (not the fainting part) but still found the details put that knot in my own stomach. My then-five-year-old daughter fractured her skull in a fall many years ago – and yes, I remember a couple of very sleepless nights at the hospital. Twenty years later, she still remembers it vividly too. But she’s fine too. Life is full of risks. As parents we just do the best we can! You do a brilliant job taking your kids out into the world.

  4. Wonderful post, Andrew, beautifully written. Minding my nieces and nephew scares the crap out of me in case anything happens to them on my watch. My tiny cousin fell off a wall and split her head when I was minding her years ago. By the end of the day she was fine and running around and I was still shaking. I did nothing wrong – kids are always going to sit on walls. There’s risk everywhere. I reckon it’s only slightly higher on your adventures, especially given how cognisant you are of your surroundings, and I reckon the payoff is worth the small extra risk. (And the fainting made me smile – thanks for including!)

  5. Hi Andrew. Really glad to hear it all worked out well. Just as well it happened in a country with a great health system (from what I read).

  6. We’ve had no skull fractures so far touch wood… but you know sometimes (if they do something dangerous-looking, or get lost for a bit, etc) these thoughts flood in. But imagine if you never let them do anything. I do believe what they say about small doses of risk helping children learn to manage it when it’s their turn to make the decisions on their own.

    • It’s a fine balance isn’t it, Bronwyn. You don’t want a fractured skull to be the point as which you say ‘stop’ but you also want them to be able to explore their limits.

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